Monterey Bay Ninety-Nines
"To most people, the sky is the limit. To those who love aviation, the sky is home."
by Jill Smith
Part 4 of a continuing series
as published in our newsletter, Logbook, October 1999
One of the airports with scheduled service from the Cold Bay base is False Pass. It is on the Cold Bay sectional and is marked "Hazardous" under its airport diagram. All Pen Air pilots flying into this airport (and all others like it, including some unmarked airports such as beaches near canneries) must have special training on the ground before being allowed to go into it. And then, we go in several times with a company instructor. We also have limitations with respect to weather, such as the wind can only be less than a certain speed and from a certain direction, also ceilings are higher in the beginning. The more experience we have the more our minimums get lowered - to a certain point.
However, due to weather and terrain, there are limitations regardless of how much experience a pilot has. For example, if the surface wind is from 310º-020º or from 110º-150º we are allowed to fly into False Pass with surface winds up to 25 knots. But if the surface wind is from 020º-110º or 150º-310º we cannot fly in there if the wind exceeds 15 knots. If the winds aloft at 3-6000 feet are from 180º-300º and greater than 30 knots or if the surface wind and the wind at 3000 feet have more than a 10 knot spread, we don't go there either. The turbulence will be too great.
To give you an idea of the force of the winds in False Pass, there is a Catholic priest whose parish includes all of the Alaska Peninsula and southwest Alaska. He is based in Dillingham and flies a Piper Seneca and a Cessna 182 to the various villages to see his parishioners. One day last year he was in False Pass with his Cessna 182. He had secured it with five tiedown straps and still it was blown over by the winds off the mountains. It ended up three airplane lengths away from where it started.
False Pass is a 2100-foot dirt strip with water on one side and terrain on the other. At one end there is water and terrain and at the other end there is the village and terrain. The runway is 13/31. The airport is on the northeast side of Unimak Island, which is the first island in the Aleutian chain. The end of the Alaskan Peninsula is one mile away at the shortest point, right across from the airport. The name "False Pass" refers to the water pass and actually isn't false, just very tricky for boats.
When landing on runway 31, we never really fly a final. There are too many downdrafts from the high terrain next to the final approach path. When the wind blows too strongly from the west and southwest, it causes severe downdrafts that create black water and/or williwaws.
Black water and williwaws are different degrees of the same phenomenon. If the wind is strong enough when it blows down the terrain and then onto the water below, it pushes the water out and up. Black water occurs when the wind speed is up to 45 knots, a williwaw is up to 60-65 knots and beyond that speed they are called waterspouts or water devils. The highest I've seen the wind take the water is 500 feet, but other pilots have seen walls of water as high as 6000 to 8000 feet!
On final for runway 13 we fly right next to a small ridge and then over the village. Sometimes we are flying right over the cars that are coming to meet us. When taking off on runway 31, it is necessary to do a quick, sharp right turn to try to avoid overflying the village, which is a little more difficult when flying a heavy Chieftain.
There are two ways to get to False Pass from Cold Bay-the Pacific side or the Bering Sea side. The normal, shorter and more direct route with more landing spots is the Bering Sea side. Due to the terrain, we are constantly watching, changing and adjusting for the wind. And, depending on the ceiling and visibility, we make altitude adjustments for crossing the water. If the ceiling is high enough, we cross at the thinnest point. If the ceiling is low, we cross along the shoreline of the Bering Sea. As we follow the shoreline of Unimak Island into False Pass, there are several points of land that stick out. As we pass each one we need to check and make sure we can still see the next one. When we get to the last "checkpoint," if we don't see the airport we turn around and get out! The name of the last point, in my GPS, is "Last Chance" and the symbol I gave it is a skull and crossbones. Our lead pilot named it "Oh*#?!=." But when the Bering Sea side is blocked by weather and the airport at False Pass is still clear, we go along the Pacific side. Going that way we need about a 2500-foot ceiling due to the terrain and lack of emergency landing spots.
My first takeoff out of False Pass, in the Chieftain, was a training flight with our lead pilot. I'd been told by a trainer to add the power slowly to let the turbos "catch up." Then I have to get to Vmcg, which is minimum controllable airspeed on the ground, and then Vr. Well, on this day we were departing on runway 13, we were fairly heavy and, as I mentioned before, the runway is only 2100-feet long. Fortunately runway 13 ends over water.
As we turned onto the runway, I added partial power and then full power and watched the airspeed s l o w l y build as I watched the end of the runway come up way too fast! I had to keep telling myself, "Don't pull on the yoke! Let the airspeed build." Finally I was able to get the nose off the ground and rotate as we were coming to the end of the runway. We came off the ground crossing the end of the runway. I sucked up the gear as soon as I could and lowered the nose as we were flying a couple of feet off the water building airspeed. I was SO happy when we were finally able to start climbing! Kim, the lead pilot, just acted like it was no big thing. I guess that's why he's called "The Navajo God."
To give you an idea how bush flying differs from normal scheduled service, one day I went in a picked up one of the young women from the village and her infant son. After I started the engine, she realized she didn't have her diaper bag. Since our planes are equipped with marine radios, which are also the main form of communication in the villages, I got on the radio and asked for the young woman's father. Someone else answered and said they would relay a message to him. I asked if he could bring the diaper bag back to the airplane. We waited another four minutes or so before he got there and we were off. Luckily we weren't behind schedule for them to catch their connection to Anchorage! This is a typical experience in the daily life of bush flying and gives a flavor of just how small the villages are and how the existence of the bush airlines keeps them connected.